Surprisingly, the difference between a vegan vs. vegetarian diet is not just about what goes on your plate.

By Julia Guerra
November 07, 2019

You know how all thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs? The same concept can help you understand what it means to be vegan versus vegetarian. In short: All vegans are vegetarians, but not all vegetarians are vegans. And if you're thinking about going plant-based in one form or another, you should probably know the difference. (On that note, there's also a difference between a plant-based diet and a vegan diet.)

What does it mean to be vegan vs vegetarian?

Here, we break down the difference between these plant-based diets that are a bit more complicated than you might imagine.

What is a vegetarian diet?

The easiest way to decipher the vegetarian vs vegan definition is to look at the foods involved in each diet. For example, a vegetarian is someone whose diet largely consists of plant-based foods and excludes meat, fish, and poultry, says Randy Evans, M.S., R.D., L.D., a consultant for Fresh n' Lean. However, there are different versions of the vegetarian diet, some of which do include certain animal products.

There are four main types of vegetarians: lacto ovo vegetarians (who consume eggs and dairy products, but not meat, fish, or poultry), lacto vegetarians (who eat dairy and abstain from meat and eggs), ovo vegetarians (who eat eggs, but not dairy), and vegans, aka vegetarians who don't consume any animal or animal-derived products, explains Evans. There are also diets that are vegetarian-based, such as the pescatarian diet–which includes fish, eggs, and dairy products—and the flexitarian diet, which occasionally includes meat, fish, poultry, and other animal products, he adds. (Related: New Review Says Vegetarian Diets Are Really Freaking Healthy)

What is a vegan diet?

Vegan diets, on the other hand, are exclusively plant-based. In other words, vegan diets exclude all meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and any other animal-derived products (think: honey), says Evans. Instead, vegan diets often include soy products like tempeh, tofu, and edamame for protein, as well as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, and products made from these ingredients.

Similar to vegetarian diets, there are different versions of the vegan diet as well. For instance, raw vegans stick to raw or minimally processed plant-based foods that are only heated at very low temperatures (if heated at all), explains Evans.

Whole-food vegans, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with consuming large amounts of whole food-derived nutrients and excluding refined foods, like added sugars, says Evans. (Related: 10 Whole Foods That Are Better for Workout Recovery Than Supplements)

Veganism isn't just a diet; it's a lifestyle. While many people make the switch to a vegan diet as a way to improve their overall health, others choose to be vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, explains Evans.

Many vegans are also concerned with ethical issues, such as how products are made, or how manufacturing or use of a product will ultimately impact the environment. Fashion (leather, fur, etc.), beauty (products tested on animals), and even household products, like furniture and rugs, are taken into consideration as well. (Related: What Does Vegan Skin-Care *Really* Mean?)

That's not to say vegetarians aren't concerned with the same ethical issues or environmental causes. In fact, many people choose vegetarianism because of issues like climate change. Everyone has different reasons for why they choose certain diets; some people feel comfortable eliminating all animal and meat products, while others prefer to keep some of those foods in their day-to-day.

How do you follow a vegan vs vegetarian diet and still make sure you're getting all the proper nutrition?

As is the case with any diet or meal plan, just because you cut out or restrict certain foods, that doesn't mean it's automatically healthy. In other words, there are specific nutritional guidelines to keep top of mind whether you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

For instance, both vegetarians and vegans need to be conscious of the amount of iron and vitamin B12 in their diet, says Kate Denniston, a licensed naturopathic doctor who works closely with vegans and vegetarians to keep their nutrient levels optimal. Adding foods such as lentils, swiss chard, soybeans, and sesame seeds to your meals will up your iron intake, while nutritional yeast and crimini mushrooms are excellent plant-based sources of B12, she suggests. Spinach is an especially great option for vegans because it has protein, iron, as well as vitamin C, which helps with iron absorption, adds Denniston.

Absorption of nutrients is important, meaning you want to increase your intake of fiber-rich foods that'll help with digestion, like asparagus, as well as fermented products like sauerkraut, which encourages a happy, healthy gut, says certified wellness coach David Nico, Ph.D., L.M.C. However, because vegetarian and vegan diets tend to include a lot more fiber than the stereotypical omnivorous diet, there is a tendency for bloating. Nico suggests trying fennel to support the GI tract and decrease flatulence. (That's farting, BTW.)

Protein is another big concern for both vegan and vegetarian eaters, says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, R.D., L.D.N., who serves on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living. After all, if vegetarians and vegans don't eat meat, where do they get their protein? (Related: 10 Foods That Help with Bloating)

Fortunately, there are countless plant-based protein sources, including legumes, soy, nuts, and vegetables. The trick is to make a list of these types of protein sources and get creative with your meals, explains Miller. However, unlike animal proteins, plant proteins are considered "incomplete" because they don't contain all of the essential types of protein that humans need, she adds. Therefore, it's best to pair two or more plant protein sources to make them complete—such as lentils and quinoa; beans and nuts; nut butter and whole-grain bread; or tofu and brown rice, suggests Miller.

So, which is healthier: vegan vs vegetarian diet?

In a word: neither

Everybody is unique with different genetic makeups, digestive tracts, and stressors that impact how you respond to certain diets, says Evans. So, while a strict vegan diet may work for your co-worker, your body might require a little more versatility. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all meal plan, explains Evans. (Related: The 10 Best Diet Programs for Every Goal)

That being said, assessing how healthy your vegetarian or vegan diet is will ultimately depend on the food choices you make on a daily basis. If you focus on eating whole, minimally processed foods, both a flexible vegetarian diet and a strict vegan diet, "have clinically demonstrated lower mortality risk, and have considerably higher cancer and heart disease prevention rates," says Suzannah Gerber, medicine consultant, vegan chef, and author. On the flip side, if you consume an abundance of processed foods and are not mindful of your nutrition, you're potentially at risk for developing nutritional deficiencies (though this is true of any diet, Evans points out).

The bottom line: If you're interested in making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, talk with your doctor about which meal plan is best for your body. From there, focus on consuming whole, minimally processed foods, be mindful of what goes into your body, and don't forget to practice everything in moderation (since, FYI, Oreos are vegan, too).

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